The Secrets and the Emotional Cost of the Adoption Industry

But evangelical groups were active in domestic adoptions, too, promoting to American women the idea that giving up a baby was a heroic act of love. Deanna believed that, except in cases of abuse or neglect, it was wrong to adopt a child unless that child had no family at all that could take it

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But evangelical groups were active in domestic adoptions, too, promoting to American women the idea that giving up a baby was a heroic act of love. Deanna believed that, except in cases of abuse or neglect, it was wrong to adopt a child unless that child had no family at all that could take it in. She tried to persuade people she knew that the thing to do was not adopt babies but give mothers what they needed to keep them. “People will say, in social-media posts, If you’re pregnant and can’t take care of your baby, I’ll adopt them,” she said. “I want to see people making ads that say, If you’re pregnant and can’t take care of your baby, I’m opening my checkbook, I will take you in, I will foot the bill for whatever you need.” She had done that herself, taking in a child for a year while the child’s mother, a relative, was in rehab. But she hadn’t had much success persuading anyone else.

When Joy came back from her time in Korea in the summer of 1994, she was angry—angry at the Korean government for giving so many children away, and angry at the ignorance of the Americans who had told her that she had been rescued, that Korea was poor and backward, that Korean men were abusive. A couple of years later, she joined Also-Known-As, or A.K.A.—a new organization based in New York that had been started by a friend of hers, Hollee McGinnis, to create a community of international adoptees. She began spending time with six or seven women in the group, all Korean adoptees around her age.

Something was happening among adoptees. In 1996, at the same time that A.K.A. was coming together, Marley Greiner, an adoptee and a reporter at the Columbus Free Press, started posting on a Usenet newsgroup, alt.adoption, and signed her posts “Bastard Nation.” Later that year, Greiner helped to form a group of the same name, in the spirit of Queer Nation and ACT UP. She envisioned Yippie-style actions—mass burning of amended birth certificates, “practical jokes” on social workers. “For those of you dear readers who may think that I had a terrible adoption experience, I did not,” Greiner wrote on the Bastard Nation Web site. “But the closed adoption system is a system of lies which would not be tolerated in any other forum.”

In the late nineties, Susan Cox, a Korean adoptee, came up with the idea of convening adult Korean adoptees for the first time. The Gathering, as it was called, was held in Washington, D.C., in 1999. It was decided to survey the participants, and Joy, who was then working for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a think tank, co-wrote a paper discussing the results. It turned out that many adoptees had been abused by their adoptive parents. More than a third of the respondents said that when they were growing up they viewed themselves as Caucasian.

Joy got a master’s in social work and took a job with an adoption agency. She wanted to understand how adoption worked, particularly home studies, through which agencies interviewed couples and matched them with children. She talked to couples who spoke about their years-long struggles with infertility, and realized how traumatized many of them were. She was required, as part of the home study, to ask about this. Had they mourned the biological child that they would not have? Had they reconciled themselves to that loss, enough to make room for this new child, who would be very different?

She pictured the adopted child grown up, asking the parents, How is it that everyone in this community is white, and everyone who comes to our dinner table is white? Even if she believed that the family was not going to honor the culture of the child, there was nothing much she could do about it—to be counselled out of adoption, parents had to have something serious on their record. But she felt she was playing God with the lives of children. She began to sleep badly at night, and when she did sleep she had nightmares about children asking her, What were you thinking, putting me in that house?

After a year and a half, she could no longer bear doing placements, and she moved to the agency’s post-adoption division. She paid home visits to see what the new adoptees needed, from medicine to translators. She loved that work. She felt that she was there in the trenches with the child and the parents as they faced each other for the first time, with all their fears and limitations and misunderstandings and difficult histories and longing and love.

Joy had met her future husband in college, though they didn’t start dating until later. He was Korean also, but not an adoptee. It was unusual for a Korean adoptee to date a Korean. Adoptees were greeted with suspicion by Korean families. Joy had dated other Korean American men, but all of them broke up with her after their mothers found out she was adopted. Not only was she not a real Korean girl, but how could they know she was a good Korean girl when they couldn’t meet her parents? Joy felt that she and her husband were an interracial couple.

When she got pregnant, in her mid-thirties, she prepared diligently to become a mother. She went into therapy and read a lot of books. When she gave birth to her son, she was afraid. Is he mine? she wondered. Will he love me? She had to leave him in the hospital overnight because he had jaundice. That night she sobbed, thinking, Will they take him away from me? Will I be allowed to bring him home?

Several months after Deborah told Angela that she was not her mother, Bryan suggested that they try to find someone else in Deborah’s family. She heard back from an aunt, Belinda, right away:


Belinda put her in touch with her siblings Timothy, James, and Carolyn, whom everyone called Nay-Nay. Angela had imagined her siblings growing up with Deborah, knowing deeply who they were. But when she spoke with Nay-Nay it turned out that they had not been fully raised by Deborah, either. The boys had lived mostly with their grandmother; Nay-Nay had lived with her grandmother until she was nine, then she had lived sometimes with Deborah and sometimes at a friend’s place. Sometimes she didn’t see Deborah at all, didn’t even know where she was.

About a year after her trip to Chattanooga, Angela heard that Deborah was ready to talk, so she called her. This time, Deborah acknowledged her right away. “Off the board, I need to apologize to you,” she said. “When I first met you, that was not to send you away—I should have gotten in touch with you myself, to let you know that I needed us to meet one-on-one, without all that rhetoric out there.” When Sandy had turned up at her door after twenty-five years, with his brother and Angela and a bunch of white people, she was caught off guard. Whatever was going on, it was not the kind of thing she liked to discuss in front of half a dozen strangers in the middle of the street.

“There’s a lot I’ve done that I can’t explain to you,” she said. “I’m angry with myself. . . . My mother did not raise me like that.” She was angry with herself mostly for not taking care of herself while she was pregnant. When Angela was born, a doctor had told her that the baby was sick, and she was led to believe that if she kept her she would probably die. Deborah said to the agency, I’ll sign this paper on one condition: don’t show me that baby, because if you do I’m not signing anything. “The hurt that I feel,” Deborah told Angela, “it will always be there. And I’ll take that to my grave.”

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